Josef Olmert
4 min readAug 16, 2021

AFGHANISTAN Fiasco-It Is Cultural, Not political

The debate over Afghanistan is already becoming the all too familiar, but irrelevant discussion over who is at fault-Biden or Trump?

Maybe it is a juicy topic, but actually the most insignificant as we all watch the drama unfolding. Democrats and Republicans will trade allegations which may or may not affect public opinion polls, but the fact is that the 20 years of American engagement in the Afghan quagmire are divided almost evenly between Presidents from both parties, so let us be serious here-it is not WHO is responsible, rather it is WHAT did not work and WHY.

The initial goals of the Afghan war were to end the Taliban/Al Qa’ida regime and hunt down Osama Bin Laden, goals which clearly were plausible and justified under the circumstances following 9/11. Soon, the original goals were enlarged to become the establishment of a democratic society in Afghanistan, a goal which was set by Bush 43 and was not abandoned by Obama-Biden. Remember Iraq in 2003, as the operation to bring down Saddam Hussein was called Operation Iraqi Freedom, and then the near complete American withdrawal and the subsequent sectarian Sunni-Shi’i civil war ensued. The stated desire for a democracy was soon leading to a bloodshed which even overshadowed the darkest days of Saddam, but let us stay in Afghanistan, where the Soviets tried their version of ‘’Afghan Freedom’’ as of 1979 and failed, and even more in the past, the British and their bitter memories of Afghanistan. Here is in a nutshell the real story, which is the built-in failure of Western powers to impose their way of life on an Islamic multi-ethnic, tribal and religiously divided [Sunnis-Shi’is ] society as Afghanistan and Iraq are. To those who wonder why did I add the Soviet failure into that, as we mention Western powers, then the answer is, that the USSR was not a Western political community, that much is obvious, but they still represented a political culture based on a Western ideology. This failure is not new, it is very old and it goes back 200 years to the beginning of the renewed Western invasion to the mostly Muslim-dominated Middle East. Napoleon tried his way by attaching the best French scientists to his invasion to Egypt in 1798, not a religious crusade, rather an attempt to share technological advancement with the religious leaders there, but that was one of the prominent sheikhs who asked the scientists whether they can cause him being present simultaneously in Egypt and Morocco… But this is not given here in order to poke fun at the Muslim scholars of the time, rather to show the difficulties of the cultural encounter. The British forced reforms on The Ottoman Empire during the second half of the 19th Century, and American Missionaries in Lebanon tried also their best, but altogether it was always leading , at best, to only partially positive results as far as the West was concerned, and that in itself arouses the question whether adopting Western style of life and regime is indeed the ‘’positive’’ result.

This is not a collective condemnation of the failure of Islamic societies to adapt themselves to the West, nor is it a general condemnation of the Western attempts to bring about this adaptation. This is a review of the failure of expectations, the sense, that political changes enforced from the outside could bring about a structural , genuine change in the affected societies. They will change , if at all, only when they will initiate the change by themselves, and even then the results are not to be taken for granted. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did it in Turkey, but Tayyip Erdoghan may do the opposite now, and both are genuine , authentic Turkish leaders.

The above relates also to the reaction to what is happening now as we can learn from statements by American policy makers. They threaten the Taliban regime not to to do what is in store for the LGBTQ community and women, lest they would be considered a pariah state in the world. This is really a sad joke, or the epitome of the fundamental misunderstanding about the Taliban. For them, to be the ‘’pariah’’ of the Western world is a decoration of excellence, since now they can go back to the Islamic world and present themselves as the ultimate, pure Jihadists against the infidels, and win support from many, though not the majority of the Muslim world. They have a different sense of history, as was so much in display when they ruined in the past the Buddhist shrines which Unesco recognized as world wide heritage sites. For them history started with Islam and not a minute before-A classic Islamic concept. It is to show to us , that this is not a political struggle, but a cultural clash, and NO, I am not defining it as a struggle between ‘’good’’ and ‘’evil’’, but between DIFFERENT cultural outlooks. If we in Western countries adopt this approach , we can evade two big mistakes which have become too common; First, that we NEED to change those who are different than us, and Second that we can DO that.

One thing we should not change-our right for self defense against those who are different AND try to impose themselves on us. So, it was right to respond to the 9/11 atrocity, but it was wrong to do it the way it was, and surely wrong to end it now the way it is.